John M. Carroll

Research Statement

My primary area of research is human-computer interaction (HCI), an area that did not exist as such before 1980. Prior to then, I had been trained in mathematics, linguistics and psychology, and had made early-career contributions in linguistics, semiotics of cinema, psycholinguistics and language perception, including research books on cinema structure and on the psychology of naming and reference, and research papers in periodicals like Science, Memory and Cognition, Language, and others.

Starting in 1981, I invested most of my professional effort into establishing human-computer interaction (HCI) as a new interdisciplinary research area, combining social and cognitive science with information technology and design. I was fortunate to select early research projects that had impact, and very fortunate to work in IBM Research so that many of my early ideas were immediately visible and adopted quite rapidly. I studied what makes a command language or a set of filenames easier to learn and use, how software is successfully designed by teams of professionals, and what the typical obstacles are to successful design efforts. These early projects helped me learn to think proactively about how and why the design of interactive systems can fail. Toward the end of the 1980s, I proposed the basic concepts of scenario-based design. Over the next decade this way of thinking about interactive system design became standard in HCI and remains so. I eventually published 3 research books and many articles on this thread of contribution.

I investigated how people were trying to learn micro-computing skills, why they were having such difficulty, and how that might be addressed through new designs. This involved detailed studies of IBM and Apple computers and their software. My work led to new designs for online information and manuals of all sorts, and further research evaluating the efficacy of those designs. It eventuated in my minimalist model for information and instruction design. This work included many papers and eventually two further research books. It also led to my first lifetime achievement award from a professional society in 1994.

As HCI became more important in information technology, our group in IBM Research started to grow. In 1984, I became senior manager of a corporate institute with 20 principal scientists. I was able to continue my own research career, and it was during this period that I broadened my work on minimalist information into a design program for advisory information of all types for IBM. I also developed new tools for training IBM programmers. I developed a practice-based theoretical framework for HCI that integrated design rationale with more traditional hypothesis-driven research and theory. In 1994 I left IBM Research to become a professor and department head at Virginia Tech; in 2003, I joined the interdisciplinary College of Information Sciences and Technology at Penn State.

When I left IBM I switched my primary focus from challenges and designs for software and office professionals to the transformation of everyday life through information technology. I was very fortunate that the Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV) project had just started, and I became one of the first researchers to investigate this new community information infrastructure. Eventually, I became the primary academic coordinator for research on the BEV. This research developed to include projects in new collaborative infrastructures for public schools, new ways of supporting teacher professional development, and new approaches to public school engagement with community, new ways to codify, celebrate, and elaborate local community history and heritage, new approaches to intergenerational collaboration and the role of active older adults in community life, community health and well-being, and, most recently, new ways to facilitate nonprofit volunteer labor in communities and for citizens to manage community data and environmental quality. Most of my work since 2000 is focused on this area.

In the past five years, my work on community information infrastructures and services has culminated in showing how contemporary community is aboutsociotechnical innovation. This contribution is most clearly articulated in my 2012 book (2014 paperback), The Neighborhood in the Internet, which describes a set of community design research projects carried out within the BEV infrastructure, and in four subsequent journal papers: my 2015 paper in Personal and Ubiquitous Computingon new design possibilities for community information systems enabled by Web 2.0, my 2015 paper in the Journal of Community Informatics,framing the history (since 1975) and trajectory of community informatics as one of technology innovation that leverages and elaborates the traditional roles of local community in society, my 2016 paper in IEEE Computeron “smart” community services as socially reciprocal coproductions, and my 2017 paper in the International Journal of Design,extending conventional designs for timebanks to encompass mobile interactions and more diverse volunteering practices.

This matters. Community is rightfully construed, as it always has been, as a source of social support, and as a foundation for civil society. The concept of community was born out of Tönniesromantic analysis of how the technological disruptions of the 19thcentury threatened a traditional social order. This now-traditional meme of “lost” or disappearing community has helped to orient significant critical analysis of technologies from power looms to televisions. My argument is that community is – at the same time– a uniquely supportive context for citizen learning and innovation, and should be analyzed as constructive, creative, and empowering. My work provides many models of how citizens can directly participate in envisioning, creating, and exploring new information infrastructures and services.

For example, my work on timebanks and other peer-to-peer voluntary exchange systems showed that people experience sense of community and build social capital while engaging in currency transactions based on time spent sharing, or on instances of sharing, in contrast to feelings of isolation and withdrawal that are typically associated with using money. We also found that a key contrast between timebank adopters whose use increases over time, and those whose use declines, is that the former identify social and skill development opportunities and rewards in timebank transactions; innovation and personal growth are keys to timebank member trajectories. This, in turn, suggests growth paths for timebanking, including member recognition mechanisms and more challenging service opportunities.

My recent focus on the concept of community dataargues that community members own and should be able to control critical hyperlocal data, such as community heritage and environmental quality. Although community nonprofits are often conceived of as resource-poor, we found substantial data skills existed by aggregating across the whole community. These skills were more broadly leveraged through community workshops we organized in the public library.

We are extending this approach with specific regard to local water quality data, harmonizing diverse databases maintained by local nonprofits to emphasize spatial and time series structures in the data, and integrating those data sets with land use, development, and population data, and with subjective judgments of environmental quality. This is a model for informal community learning about data analytics and visualization that makes community data more visible to and actionable by concerned citizens. We are working with community partners through a Faculty Fellowship from the Penn State Student Engagement Network and a seed grant from the Penn State Institute for Cyberscience (an NSF proposal is in review). We can wish that benevolent overseers will ensure our water quality, but as cases like that of Flint, Michigan, vividly show, this is not always true. Globally, the Lancetestimated (in late 2017) that nearly 2 million premature deaths each year are attributable to water pollution.


    I am a faculty member in Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology studying HCI and Collaboration